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Screening at WorldFest-Houston

April 24, 2016

Last weekend, “The Adventures of Paul and Marian” screened at WorldFest-Houston.

WorldFest has quite the history. This was their 49th year. One of the oldest independent film festivals out there, WorldFest claims to have discovered filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, Brian de Palma, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, David Lynch and the Coen Brothers.

Cinematographer/Producer Alan McIntyre Smith and actor Ramona Floyd (“La Junta”) joined me for the trip.

Our movie played on a giant 75-foot screen, in a beautiful theater with a great sound system, so we were finally able to showcase the great visuals and sound mix to their fullest extent. The movie plays just beautifully in front of an audience. I could really feel how much the audience was with us throughout the entire movie. I have rarely been so proud of a cast and crew than I was that night, watching the movie in a real movie theater and listening to the audience while they laughed, gasped, and cheered.

After the screening, several people came up to us for autographs and pictures. One person told me he’s been coming to WorldFest for 22 years, and our movie is one of the best he’s seen there. Over the next several days we ran into people who had all sorts of good things to say about it.

I was asked to be part of the indie filmmakers panel the next day, and people just couldn’t believe that we shot this movie in only 10 days with such minimal resources. A Chinese director we met told me “you must be geniuses” and introduced me to people throughout the rest of the festival as “a genius who shot a feature in 10 days.”

WorldFest-Houston is known for their Remi awards. We won the platinum Remi for an independent feature, one of the top awards at the festival.

As any true indie filmmaker knows, it’s a real marathon to get an independent movie out into the world. It was such an honor and a relief to have this movie recognized at Houston WorldFest after so much time. Here’s to more screenings to come.

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Cinematographer and co-producer Alan McIntyre Smith and Writer/Director/Producer Jay Stern show off their Platinum Remi award.

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Director selfie with star Ramona Floyd

Awards and a Festival

October 22, 2015

I am very excited to announce that “The Adventures of Paul and Marian” is now an award-winning film!

The film won Honorable Mentions for “Best Writing” and “Best Music” in the first annual Independent Film Awards from the Los Angeles Film Review, an Honorable Mention from the SaMo Indie Festival, and an Award of Merit from the Accolade Global Film Completion.

Lastly, the film was accepted into the ReadingFilmFEST in Reading, PA. The movie will have its festival premiere there on November 14th.

For those of you who have been following my journey with this film, you’ve seen that as much as it was a challenge to bring this movie to production, it’s been at least an equal challenge getting the film some recognition in a crowded market that is intrinsically unfriendly to scrappy real indie movies like ours. So recognition like this is a big deal for us, and I hope there will be more news to come.

In the meantime, for those of you near Reading, PA, come and see the film! I’ll be there in person to present the movie and hold a Q&A afterwards. Tickets are available online here.

On Trailers

March 26, 2015

I wrote, directed, and edited The Adventures of Paul and Marian, but when it came to creating a trailer for the movie, I was really at a loss.

A good trailer has to evoke the style and feel of the movie, give a general idea of the story, and show some of the movie’s best moments without giving everything away. It has to be exciting, evocative, and informative, all within a short span of time. It’s like an elevator pitch, but with video clips and music.

This is even harder to do than it sounds. It’s hard to make a trailer for any movie. But before “Paul and Marian,” I had created successful trailers for my previous two features — one by myself, and the other with the collaboration of the cinematographer and writer of the movie. It took a little wrangling, but these trailers fell into place fairly quickly.

But the trailer for The Adventures of Paul and Marian was one of the hardest things I’ve ever edited.

The story of the movie is fairly simple, but on its own, the story isn’t what makes the movie interesting. So just setting up the story wasn’t enough. I tried many approaches. I tried using one of the movie’s songs as the structure for the trailer. I tried using whimsical title cards to convey the spirit and subject matter of the movie. I tried a version that introduced the various characters in a fun and stylized way. I tried some experimental meta-trailers to channel the anarchic quality I tried to bring to the movie. But everything I did was confusing or boring or failed to convey the feeling or story of the movie or all of the above.

I worked for a while then took some time off and then worked again, and still nothing was clicking. At my wits end, I reached out to an experienced director/editor friend who has made trailers before, and I bartered doing a few days of sound work on his latest documentary in exchange for him cutting a trailer for me. (I totally won out on this. His documentary is fascinating and I got a front row seat via a boom microphone.) My friend’s version of the Paul and Marian trailer was really fun and opened the door to a lot of approaches I hadn’t thought of. But it was long and didn’t reflect the pace of the movie, which is one of its charms. So I started tinkering with it.

Around this time I brought in friends to take a look at what I had done so far and what I was doing to this latest trailer. These friends were media-savvy; filmmakers, writers, editors, or people with marketing backgrounds. Some of them had seen the movie, and some hadn’t, and I relied on their feedback to let me know whether the trailer was doing what it needed to do. Eventually I landed on an approach that worked for everyone and kept the fun spirit of the movie. Stay tuned – you’ll see that trailer posted here soon.

But seriously, it was harder to cut this trailer than it was to cut the movie. It’s clearly an art of its own and not for the weak. If you can avoid it, don’t cut a trailer for your own movie!

Real Independent Film

December 2, 2014

Not so long ago there was an article in the New York Times that discussed how the genre of romantic comedy has now become the domain of independent films. The example the Times used in this article was a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe.

That’s right. The star of the billion plus grossing Harry Potter series. There’s no way a real independent filmmaker could afford to hire Daniel Radcliffe. His salary alone would fund a whole slate of indie movies. And once Daniel Radcliffe is in your movie, it has automatic distribution. That’s not the case for real independent movies.

There’s a huge disconnect these days between what is classified by “independent” by the industry, the press, and the public, and what us independent filmmakers experience in the trenches. The industry term for independent simply means a movie that isn’t funded by a major studio. It can still be a multi-million dollar movie and have bona fide movie stars in it. It can have a studio attached to distribute it, and it can be directed by a celebrity like Angelina Jolie or Jon Stewart, just to name a few “independent” directors.

What does that mean for independent filmmakers like me and my colleagues? Our work is once again moved down a notch, shoved out of the film festival circuit to make room for the well-funded “indie” features of the connected, and left aside by distributors who are now primed to expect independent features with names attached to them.

This has gotten me thinking about what it really means to be independent. I was at an independent film festival recently with my feature Spirit Cabinet, and all the films there (mine included) seemed to be simply lower budget versions of mainstream commercial films. But we can’t compete with Hollywood. We can’t even compete with most of the so-called independent films out there. So why even try?

Sure, if you want to guarantee wide distribution for your movie before you make it, do whatever you can to get someone famous to star in it. But good luck with that – you’re setting up such odds that you have a slim chance of ever getting the film made.

If, on the other hand, you simply have to make films, if you’re consumed with passion about filmmaking, creating, writing, editing, shooting, storytelling, then as an independent filmmaker you are obligated to ignore all of this and, to borrow a phrase from the unstoppable Lloyd Kaufman, make your own damn movie. And be as fiercely creative as possible. Don’t pull punches. Don’t worry about what you think the market may or may not be looking for. If you’re a real independent filmmaker, the truth is the market isn’t looking for you anyway. Be true to yourself, serve your vision, and make a good movie.

The industry is in such a shambles right now, and the climate has never been this bad for us truly indie filmmakers. But we have a choice. We either make movies or we don’t. And for some of us it really isn’t a choice.

What I Learned in Rome

November 16, 2014

I spent four weeks in Rome this fall. And it shouldn’t have happened.

I am a founding member of the World Wide Lab, an international collective of theater directors dedicated to meeting once a year to develop work together. Our mission is to, once a year, step out of our normal way of working and to expand our skills and to learn from each other.

Since 2011, we’ve met each year in the New York City area. After last year’s lab, the Italian member of our group announced that this year we’d put on a full production in Rome.

We had no idea how we were going to do this. We had no funding. Many of us have day jobs that would be hard to leave for a month. It didn’t make sense. Only one of us speaks Italian. How were we going to direct plays in Italy?

But just over a year later, there we were, sitting around a table in a piazza in Rome, about to start our first European production. We came there from Taiwan, from Israel, from Germany, from Greece, from Canada, from across the US. Somehow we found a way for it to happen.

It wasn’t easy. We all made sacrifices to be there. We weren’t calculating whether such a project was good for our careers or not. We certainly weren’t making money doing this. But we did it because we had to. We wanted to create exciting and challenging work together so we made a commitment for it to happen. And the work was good.

I realized in Rome that this is the most important thing as an artist – we have to be making things, no matter what. I made The Adventures of Paul and Marian so I could create a movie that I wanted to see with a specific team of actors and collaborators I wanted to work with. I committed to making this movie without a dime of funding and no real plan on how to make it happen. But the work needed to be done.

And we did it. We held fundraising events. We had an auction. We ran a crowdfunding campaign. We got a grant. We begged, borrowed, made do. And with the support of nearly 200 funders, a dedicated cast and crew, and a large group of friends and volunteers, we made a movie.

A frustrating lesson I’ve learned is that that’s not always enough. Making a good movie doesn’t mean people will be able to see it. Since completing the movie in January, I’ve spent the past 11 months submitting the film to festivals and distributors, and as of this writing we’ve been accepted absolutely nowhere.

But the work is good. In order to get the film seen, I must make a commitment to getting the film distributed the way I made a commitment to getting the film made, or the way the 12 directors of the World Wide Lab made the commitment to go to Rome. Normal channels aren’t available to us, and opportunities for independent filmmakers to have their work seen are dwindling. Work that doesn’t capitalize on casting famous actors to get noticed (although our actors are as good or better than many famous actors you’ll see) and isn’t developed through market research is rare these days. But that’s who we are. We made The Adventures of Paul and Marian because we had to.

I’m approaching the next stage of the project with the same dedication and pure (perhaps naïve) intentions I brought to the making of the film. If I have to hand deliver a copy of the movie to people around the country, then so be it. But I’m making a commitment to getting the film out there.

Stay tuned. I don’t know how yet, but I know we can make this happen.

Nearing the Finish Line

November 3, 2013

I haven’t posted here in a long time, but I have been hard at work on the movie. It’s been a very intense six months. We spent most of the summer compositing, creating background images, and recording and mixing the sound for the movie.

Over the past two months we’ve been making tweaks and final corrections, all of which are time consuming.

It was long and tedious work, but I was fortunate to have a group of dedicated and talented people working with me.

As of this week, all of the images will be completed and perfected as much as they can be. We’ll then move into the final color correction stage, which will just take about a week of work. Then we’ll do a final 5.1 surround mix of the audio.

And then we will be done.

Really, entirely, completely done.

It’s been almost 5 years since I first came up with the idea for this movie, and over two years since we wrapped shooting. This is a complicated film and it needed time to come together, but being a very low budget independent film it’s taken even longer since we’ve had to stop to fundraise and work around the schedules of people who are donating their time or working for a reduced rate.

But the end is in sight. We are almost completely done.

On Patience, or Why is it Taking So Long to Finish This Movie?

April 25, 2013

I was recently cleaning up some documents and I came across the first notes for The Adventures of Paul and Marian. Dated February 2009, the document sketches out, pretty fully, the concept that would become the movie.

2009 was a long time ago. It’s been a long struggle and fight to complete this project. And it’s not over yet.

So why does it take so many years to make an independent movie?

First, I spent a lot of time making the script as strong as it could be. If I had millions of dollars to spend on famous actors and high-end production values I could maybe have gotten away with a mediocre script. But for a low budget film without movie stars, you can’t afford to have a script that is anything but spectacular. Writing the script and then perfecting the script (and then perfecting it even more) took time.

The $100,000 that has taken us this far on the project is not a lot of money in movie terms, but it’s a huge amount of money in real-life terms. Once I had the script ready and the team assembled, it took well over a year to get the resources and money together to shoot the film.

Shooting was the only fast part of the process – 10 wonderful, long, jam-packed, whirlwind days which we spent actually making the movie, rather than planning and strategizing and fundraising.

Those 10 days ended in June 2011, nearly two years ago.

The editing process went fairly quickly; by early 2012 the movie was edited. I had test screenings and paired it down to make it as lean and mean as it could be.

So why is the movie still not finished? The answer is in the nature of the film. The movie was shot entirely in front of a green screen, which means that every shot requires visual effects work. And it’s also a fiercely-independent super low-budget movie. Our only resources are the immense talents of our cast, crew, and creative team. Those resources can get us very far, but to do green screen work (aka “compositing”) you need a team of people with an office of expensive computers. We have one brave and courageous effects person and an iMac.

We’ve been in the compositing stage of post production since last year. I’ll write about this process in some detail soon, but in a nutshell, if you’re not familiar with this kind of thing, shooting in front of a green screen allows us to create all sorts of locations that we couldn’t afford otherwise, and allows us to invent impossible locations and all sorts of visual jokes in the background of the scenes. We simply remove the green background on a computer and insert whatever kind of location we can imagine.

This is not a fast process. First we have to remove the green. If it’s unevenly lit or the green reflects onto an actor’s glasses or bounces off of a prop or set piece, or if an actor’s hair is blowing in a breeze and we have to be careful not to cut out strands of hair when we remove the green, we have to spend a lot of time to get this right. Then there’s the tracking stage, in which we have to connect the image we insert in the background with markers on the green screen so that the background maintains the same relationship to the actors when the camera moves. And of course we have to create the backgrounds, all of which require researching and finding source images, creating backgrounds in 3-D modeling software, animating the backgrounds, or a combination of these things.

Keep in mind we have to do this for virtually every single shot in this movie. I haven’t counted, but it’s a fair estimate to say that the movie is made up of a minimum of 1,000 shots.

Working with a low budget and being committed to quality means that things have to take as long as they have to take. We’ve achieved too much for me not to make it the best film I possibly can. So it keeps taking time.

I don’t know what I would have thought if I knew back in February 2009 just how long this journey would be. Since then, I have gotten older. Friends of mine have given birth to children who are now talking.

But if back in 2009 I would have been able to see the work we’ve accomplished this far, I would have been elated. This movie continues to be a dream worth fighting for. It’s a very unique movie and is going to be not quite like anything you’ve seen before. And you’ll be able to see just how much everyone who has worked on the film has personally put into it.

So I’ll keep laboring away, and try hard to stay as patient as I can be. Those of you who know me know how difficult that comes to me naturally, but I’m serving a greater purpose here.

And rest assured, the world will see The Adventures of Paul and Marian. It just may take a little time.

Recording the Singers

March 21, 2013

I wrote “The Adventures of Paul and Marian” for a specific group of actors. When I started writing it, it wasn’t a musical.

Then I wrote a scene in which Marian started to sing. And bit by bit, the movie became a musical.

There was one problem: I cast the movie with actors who weren’t singers.

But, this being a movie, that wasn’t much of a problem. There’s a long history of movie musicals in which other singers sing the songs for the leads.

I did one thing slightly differently though. I had the cast sing a rough recording of the songs to use during the filming of the movie. That way the actors could sing along with themselves on set and make their own performance choices. This was a very important point for me, because I wanted any professional singers we would bring in to match the choices and performance energy of the actors.

Over the past few weeks we’ve been recording the singers at a wonderful studio in Brooklyn called YouTooCanWoo. The singers we cast in these roles are also actors, and that was very important for me. Actors are more likely to “get” what we’re doing and would be more open to singing in “incorrect” ways as needed. Since we’re in New York, there are tons of musical theater singers to choose from, and we found some great ones, including two who are currently on Broadway, and a third who was nominated for a Tony for his work on Broadway last year.

The singers were all a delight to work with. And they were able to nail their parts very quickly, often with just a few takes.

Below is a brief behind-the-scenes video with clips from our recording sessions. Pictured are Larkin Bogan as Paul, Ron Raines as The General, and Laura Dreyfuss as Marian.

Recording the Singers for “The Adventures of Paul and Marian” from Jay Stern on Vimeo.

Sound and Music

March 17, 2013

I had a meeting with composer Zach Abramson and sound designer Greg Sextro today. I love meetings like this. Two people who are working on very different aspects of the movie had to plan out together what each one of them was going to do so that they can be working in synch.

We watched the movie twice. First Zach and I went through it scene by scene and planned out where we think there should be music cues (not including the songs of course). Then Greg watched it with us. Zach and I presented our ideas for music cues, and Greg asked all sorts of questions as to our stylistic choices for the music. As you will eventually see once this movie is finally finished, it’s an odd thing, and it takes some talking through for everyone to understand exactly how we want to play out. There are places where sound design can do the heavy lifting, while in others music will be in the forefront. And in others still, the sound design and the music will be working together to create specific effects.

Sound and music are crucial elements for any movie. But for a movie musical with fantastical elements, they’re even more crucial. So sound and music really have to communicate well throughout post production to make sure they’re on the same page. Of course as the writer and director, I’m the arbiter of this, but I want to make sure that Greg’s and Zach’s impulses are also integrated. I chose them both for this movie because I know their work quite well and want to bring their sensibilities to the finished product.

On top of all of this, the movie is a comedy. I have specific ideas of how I want moments to play out for laughs, but comedy is very subjective. The way I see the jokes landing may not be the same as Zach or Greg. And who knows how an audience will really respond to this movie. So we also have to navigate that. One thing I really like about both Greg and Zach is that they’re open to just trying things. So we may go through several versions of moments before we find out exactly what works.

This is just one of the reasons why it’s taken me nearly two years to finish post production on this movie. We have to get everything exactly right, or at least as right as we’re able to get it given the circumstances and our resources.

Trimming, Trimming and More Trimming

July 1, 2012

My first edit of the movie consisted of all of the scenes we shot, in their entirety, in the order the script dictated.  The edit was the script turned into a movie.

For those of you who have made movies before, you know that this edit is only very, very rarely the movie you’re going to end up with.

The movie ran 104 minutes, which isn’t bad considering it was a 103-page script with songs.  Normally a script page equals one minute of screen time, but songs tend to make it run longer.  The fact that the completed edit came in at 104 minutes showed how fast-paced the movie is, and I felt it came across as such in the edit.  Snappy dialogue, quick transitions, and a lot of story were jammed into a brisk hour and 44 minutes.

When I screened the edit for director of photography / producer Alan Smith, he was really thrilled with it.  He thought it could use lots of cuts though and that we should get the movie down to 90 minutes.

I happen to think that most movies are too long and am a big fan of movies in the 90-minute range.  (The films of Andrei Tarokovsky and a few others excepted.)  My first feature ran 93 minutes with credits, and my second one totaled 89.  I knew the film needed some trims, both for pacing and also to remove redundant dialogue.  I thought that with some painful cuts, we could get it down to maybe 97 minutes.  But 90?  No way, that’s too much.

In my next pass on the edit, I picked up the pace, removed some unnecessary lines in scenes that I felt were lagging, and I even cut some verses from a few of the songs.  Due to our lack of shooting time and small budget, we weren’t able to shoot the musical numbers in a spectacular way, so it was important to keep the story moving as much as possible.  Where a song took two verses to express an emotion or idea, I chose to just use one of them.

The movie was now down to a healthy 98 minutes.  But now with extra snappy scenes and faster pacing, more scenes started to feel sluggish or repetitive.  So I started again and made some extremely painful decisions.  I cut a few short scenes out of the movie.

And then I made one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made on a movie.  I cut out a longer scene.  It’s the only scene in which a few of the lead characters meet.  It had an important part of a character’s arc in it.  It also has a song.  So we had to write a song, made adjustments to it, teach the song to the actor, rehearse it and record it.  The scene was difficult to stage and shoot, and I agonized over exactly how we were going to be able to do it.  We had to buy special props for this scene that were a big expense and took a lot of time to rig.  I would have killed to have the extra 5 hours of shooting we would have saved if we hadn’t shot this scene, not to mention the money it would have saved us.  I obviously thought it was an essential scene when I conceived and shot it, so maybe I was being too critical.  Maybe there was a way to salvage it.

I screened the movie again (now 93 minutes long) for someone who had seen the first cut and didn’t tell him that I cut this scene.  He didn’t notice it was gone.  That pretty much sealed it.  The scene wasn’t necessary, and since it wasn’t a really spectacular scene as executed, there was no strong argument to keep it.

My composer thankfully agreed when I showed him the movie.  I felt bad about cutting a song.  It was a good one too.  But one of the reasons I love Zach Abramson’s work, and why I like to work with him, is that although he thinks musically, he puts story and character first.  His interests are always the interests of the story we’re telling rather than his particular area of expertise.  He’s fighting for the same movie I am.

Now the movie is down to 93 minutes.  Some of the first cuts I agonized about seem so obvious now that I’ve made them.  And I see even more little cuts to make.  After I finish the next pass, I suspect we’ll make the 90-minute mark after all.  Funny how that works.